Peter Bogdanovich’s superb collection of movie-star profiles and interviews — a sequel to Who the Devil Made It, his interviews of top film directors — begins with an affectionate tale about Orson Welles that reminds us just how intimate the author’s connection to Hollywood’s greatest has been. But contrary to what we’ve come to expect from dime-a-dozen celebrities and celebrity interviews not worth two cents, the tale avoids bromidic egotism and journalistic platitudes.
Reprinted from the Sunday edition of the Chicago Sun-Times.
THE STARS ACCORDING TO BOGDANOVICH
September 12, 2004
By JAN HERMAN
Peter Bogdanovich’s superb collection of movie-star profiles and interviews — a sequel to Who the Devil Made It, his interviews of top film directors — begins with an affectionate tale about Orson Welles that reminds us of just how intimate the author’s connection to Hollywood’s greatest has been. But contrary to what we’ve come to expect from dime-a-dozen celebrities and celebrity interviews not worth two cents, the tale avoids bromidic egotism and journalistic platitudes. Rather, it introduces the collection’s main theme: “the essential paradox about actors,” as Bogdanovich puts it.
This involves the peculiar authority of some personalities to stamp the screen with an indelible imprint of innocence and vulnerability even when playing nasty roles. Think of James Cagney as the psychopathic gangster in “White Heat,” or Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster, or John Wayne as the surly old cowboy in “Red River,” which set the template for which he’s remembered. “The particular quality in a star that makes audiences instantly suspend their disbelief — something men like Wayne or Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda naturally bring with them when they enter a scene — is an achievement which normally goes so unnoticed that most people don’t even think of it as acting at all,” Bogdanovich writes.
WHO THE HELL’S IN IT:
WHO THE HELL’S IN IT:
He could also have mentioned others in the book like Cary Grant, who “became universally accepted as some kind of an American even though he never remotely sounded like one,” or Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Charlie Chaplin, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra and, yes, Jerry Lewis, all of whom combined their personalities with their screen roles so believably that they attained iconic status. Bogdanovich gives each a chapter, along with Jack Lemmon, Sidney Poitier, Anthony Perkins, Montgomery Clift, even Dean Martin, among 26 stars in all. If some careers — Wayne’s, for example — were based on playing mere variations of the same character, Bogdanovich takes that as further proof of the audience’s suspension of disbelief.
He does not ignore Hollywood’s female stars, though he writes about only six, among them Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. Hollywood has never been a woman’s world. Lauren Bacall’s interview, which runs to 69 pages (second longest in the book), makes that clear. And it’s the most entertaining because of her savvy personality, salty language and provocative opinions (sometimes questionable but always candid). Here she is on director Howard Hawks: “He had a fantasy of being a real Svengali. He wanted to own me, he wanted to go to bed with me. … Then when Bogart took over, he could not bear it.”
Despite her reputation for frankness — see her memoirs By Myself and Now — Bacall would not have let down her hair for just any interviewer. She does it for Bogdanovich because he’s an insider. She knows him, as have most of his subjects. But he’s also more than just an insider. He’s a man with a calling, a rare Hollywood polymath: Oscar-nominated director and screenwriter; veteran actor; precocious film critic; extraordinary film buff (for 18 years he kept a file of index cards detailing every movie he ever saw — 5,316, including repeat viewings — from the time he was 12); and serious film scholar who’s published a dozen well-written, highly praised books and monographs.
He’s even a celebrity whose own Svengali relationships with beautiful women made him a prime target of the tabloid press. First there was the actress Cybill Shepherd, then Dorothy Stratten, the 1980 Playboy Playmate of the Year who at age 20 was murdered by her husband, and then her younger sister, Louise, whom Bogdanovich married (they’re now divorced) and for whom he arranged plastic surgery to redesign her face in Dorothy’s image.
But his greatest talent may be literary. Bogdanovich’s writing is pungent, his insights smart and penetrating. While it can be argued he’s been too influenced as a director by his idols, notably Welles, Hawks and John Ford — which has kept him from matching their originality even in his most successful films (“The Last Picture Show,” “What’s Up Doc” and “Paper Moon”) — as an author he surpasses them all.
In his splendid profile on Bogart, the only star in the collection he did not know or meet, Bogdanovich offers a poignant glimpse of him on his deathbed after a long battle with throat cancer. It shows how much the man had become the myth. Elsewhere he points out that sometimes the myth and the man have less in common than you’d expect. Jimmy Stewart played the shy, retiring type on screen. In life, he was a wolf, which, Bogdanovich tells us, “was known only among a few.”
The writing can be stylishly clever, too, including a first-class parody that apes the prose of John Dos Passos and mimicry that captures verbal mannerisms on the silent page: Stewart’s drawl, Grant’s odd inflections, and easier, Cagney’s legendary gangster tics. But it’s the unexpected insights most of all that make Who the Hell’s in It so engaging.
John Wayne, for instance, is shown to be modest and thoughtful. It is Wayne who voices some of the book’s wisest, most knowledgeable advice about movie acting. Ford, he says, “taught me that a reaction is the most valuable thing you can have on a picture.” Reaction shots “become very important throughout a picture, they build your part. They always say I’m in action pictures, but it’s in reaction pictures that they remember me.”
Why is there no Clint Eastwood or Jack Nicholson, Paul Newman or Warren Beatty, Robert Redford or Barbra Streisand? Maybe Bogdanovich is saving them for another volume; then again, maybe not. He regards today’s stars largely as “a mixed bag” tainted by TV and “straining for size,” while serious actors of “considerable talent and appeal like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino or Tom Hanks have preferred versatility to the old kind of picture stardom.”
“Only a few other actors today” — namely Nicholson — “and one politician (Bill Clinton) have the really personal identity of the original movie stars with which this book deals,” Bogdanovich asserts. Yet he includes chapters on John Cassavetes, Ben Gazzara and River Phoenix, not to mention the offbeat Sal Mineo. They’re hardly towering figures. But Bogdanovich is a sentimentalist with a deep personal connection to each of them. If he wants to tout them, he’s earned the right.